As they approached Dulcinea, and the ship's cargo hatch opened, the crew saw the inner door had a human-sized entrance.  That, presumably, led forward from there, into the ship.  Landing in the "parking porch", next to the already present air-rafts, they were greeted by a liveried man who stood by the closed door waiting.  The man was also wearing some form of filter mask which covered half his face and protected him from the fine grit blowing in the air.  As Mikah landed their craft, the main hatch started closing and they were greeted by the man.  After they disembarked, he led the Knights and Ms. Vik through the interior door into a small but opulent space.  Despite its decor, it could only be described as a sitting room, rectangular in shape, with doors leading further into the ship.
One of the doors from the room seemed to lead forward through the bulkhead directly across from their position.  Another led starboard from the bulkhead to their right as they entered.  The furnishings were all wood, with brocaded fabric seats and pillows.  The walls were richly covered in fabrics, with many gemstones worked into everything.  The Countess, a woman of average height and looks, was there with several of her people.  As the party arrived, she stood to greet them.  The liveried man who led them inside presented the Knights to the Countess, who waved him to the side of the room as she came forward for introductions.  The Countess warmly greeted everyone and shook hands.
Countess Ursara recognized the Knights in advance, but when she saw Ms. Vik she politely asked, "You are?"  Ms. Vik replied, "I am Inger Vik and I am Her Ladyship's Seneschal."  The Countess smiled at the whole party and casually said, "Welcome Aboard.  Please sit.  What brings you to the Jae Tellona system?" as she also returned to her seat.  Everyone took a seat while one of the staff began serving drinks as Mikah said, "Well, we're just passing through on our way to Rhylanor, and then to Mora for our confirmations."  The Countess responded, "Oh!  That should be very fun.  I just came from Rhylanor."
Mikah asking, "Really?" with a tone of interest that stopped the Countess saying what she was going to say.  Instead, she replied, "Yes" with a smile.  When Mikah asked, "What's going on there right now?" the Countess said, "Oh, two weeks ago it was the same as it always is.  Rhylanor is a very busy system.  I did meet with Leonard, about getting some traffic routes re-routed..."  When Sir Zimzod suggested she meant trade routes, Countess Ursara changed direction again saying, "We are always looking for more trade.  Are you in the business of trade?"  Responding, Zimzod relaxed a bit, with a hint of a smile and said, "No.  I am just travelling around having fun."  Ursara paused a minute, and then said, "I see", before turning her attention back to Mikah.
The Countess said, "Those are very nice earrings.  May I see them?"  As she said this, the Countess rose and stepped close to Mikah to examine the jewelry without waiting for a reply.  Caught by surprise at her abrupt moves, Mikah said, "They were a gift from Duke Norris."  Stepping back with a less impressed expression, the Countess said, "Hmm.  They'd look nicer if they had gemstones in the center."  Leaping on the opportunity, Mikah asked, "I understand you trade in gemstones?"  Countess Ursara brightened up as she said, "Actually, Yes!  Would you like to see my showroom?" and Mikah enthusiastically answered, "I would love to."
Rising, Countess Ursara said "Walk this way", as she moved towards the door on the starboard bulkhead of the sitting compartment.  Once through the door, they could see that the rest of the cargo bay had been redesigned into one huge display room for gemstones.  Some were in cases that could be opened and some seemed sealed in.  The only major difference in the wide variety of stones was that some had prices and many did not.  The compartment itself was tastefully filled so it didn't appear "stuffed", and the eye seemed to glide along the many-colored varieties of gems.  In fact, the play of colors seemed almost artistic in its arrangement, showing extensive work went into the design of the display.
Noting that rare minerals were also represented in both polished and unpolished forms, almost all had the feeling this bay would be a pirate's wet dream.  As they looked around, it was obvious to them what was for sale and what was not.  What was not obvious was the empty case that Ms. Vik noticed as she took in the sights, and tried to recognize anything specifically special.  Looking to the others, Inger saw that none of them seemed to have noted the case.
As they looked, Ursara settled into a very well-rehearsed tour guide/sales speech that started with her collection of personal treasures.  She soon transitioned into a sales speech covering the increasing number of very expensive items she had for sale.  As this was happening, Inger made her way casually over to Mikah and whispered in her ear while nodding with her chin in the direction of the empty case.  As Mikah looked, Sir Brian caught the activity and did his best to follow her gaze.  Both Knights noticed the empty case, and saw nothing to indicate its significance.  Wrapping up her speech standing next to Mikah, she asked, "Are you interested in buying anything you see?"
Mikah answered, "Well, everything here is beautiful.  But I am not sure we are in a position to buy this kind of item at the moment."  The Countess said, "I see", with a smile in her eyes and paused before asking, "What are you most interested in when it comes to gems?"  Mikah also paused before answering, "Well, I have a very, very small gem collection.  Nothing you would even consider valuable."  The Countess cut her off saying, "Oh, come now, you are a Knight!  We have to improve that!"
Suddenly feeling like she was in a Starship-Timeshare program pressure cooker somehow, Mikah responded, "Hopefully, in the future.  That would be a wonderful thing.  But I do have a small collection..."  Again, the Countess cut her off saying, "Would you be interested in a Tellona Diamond?"  Mikah very enthusiastically answered, "I would be very interested in a Tellona Diamond", stressing the word "Very".  She continued, "But I know I can't afford that."  The Countess then coyly said, "Well maybe we should go back into my sitting room", and Mikah uncertainly answered "OK" as they moved.
As the group returned to the sitting room, Countess Ursara waved a finger at one of her staff.  That crewperson immediately left through the door leading, presumably, to the forward sections of the ship.  The other two staff members in the room began serving drinks.  As everyone sat and sipped, or settled in for whatever unknown event was coming next, the staffer returned and moved to the Countess' side as he handed her a data pad.  Gazing at the data pad first, Ursara looked up and said, "OK.  I have an opportunity for you." as the Knights and Inger braced for the worst.
When no one answered, Ursara said that she'd hired staff in all the cities to try to reach out to the nomadic tribes of Jae Tellona.  With a sudden business-like look, she admitted the results had been "less than spectacular".  But a Tellona Diamond was one of the notable items she didn't have in her collection.  The team were wondering, and in Zimzod's case worrying, what this had to do with them as the Countess continued.
Ursara said, "One of my traders has managed to find out that a few of the nomadic tribes will be meeting to trade goods fairly soon.  He also believes he has learned the location of this meeting.  As a result, I am putting together a week-long expedition to see if I cannot join in the trading.  The issue is that I can't hire enough people to man the expedition.  The locals are all too frightened of being caught out on the sands by the nomads.  While I'm certain we can make contact diplomatically, I can't convince anyone that we can work this out.  So, while you would not want to be my employees in this, I am certain a partnership would offer you the best chance to get a Tellona Diamond you are ever going to find.  Of course, helping me would also win my favor as a Countess."  After a pause to let that sink in, she asked, "That said, would you consider being a partial partner in this?"Considering The Partnership
Now it was Mikah's turn to practice tact as she responded, "Well.  We're not really good at...diplomacy", hoping that none of the others would lose control and actually laugh.  Brian did snort, and the Countess smiled as he did, saying, "That is completely understandable.  But I will be the one doing the talking.  If you'd like to accept my invitation, I'm sure we can work something out that fits your skills."  Sir Zimzod asked, what does this all entail?" Mikah joined in on that track asking, "Can you give us more details on what it is you want us to do?"
Countess Ursara explained, "We intend to hire local Tanirs ( Tan-Ears: Camel Analogs ) and Golnings( Gol-ny-ings: Horse Analogs ) and not fly out there.  If the nomads see any technology, they will scatter.  That was clear over the history of dealing with these people.  We're going out on their turf, and have to show them we respect their way of life and are not trying to force anything on them.  I will bring a significant collection of tech goods that I believe they will want and we will try to trade."
When Mikah started to point out, "But they do not like technology..."  The Countess cut her off, saying, "They do like technology.  But they trade for tech they can use.  They just don't want it to take over.  They trade for that tech which fits into their lifestyle, without changing them.  Historical records prove they will trade for some goods."  Sensing an opportunity, Mikah asked, "Would they trade for machine parts?"  Not sure what the Knight was getting at, Countess Ursara said they might trade for a few parts, if they needed them.  But they didn't have large machines as far as anyone knew.
A silence grew as they considered what they'd heard, until the Countess added, "As for details, I hope you can help with managing the staff, the campsites and camp security.  I'll even provide the camping gear.  Remember, there is no guarantee that this will result in anything except time wasted.  But if you help me, compensation is surely not limited to any cache of gemstones we trade for.  I am a Countess, and my ability to compensate you is less limited than most people you might help out."  Coming to less of a decision than an opinion, Mikah said, "I think we have to discuss this among ourselves if you don't mind?"
Brian asked, "What sort of weapons are these nomads known to carry?  I mean, is there a list on file somewhere?"  The Countess said that this can't be known, as it was recognized they had both their own locally produced weapons and had traded for higher tech weapons over the many centuries.  So, while their higher tech weapons would be much fewer in number, and likely in less good repair, they would have a mix of weapons that they could assume would mostly include slug throwers.
Zimzod asked, "And what weapons would we be allowed to carry, especially while leaving the city?  Will we have sealed and air-conditioned shelters, inertial locators and all the needs of technology."  Ursara smiled again, saying "I have an agreement with the port master, so we can carry out with us what technology and equipment we feel appropriate.  So long as we do not go through the city proper, passing around the city's borders, we can take whatever we want.  Of course, when it comes to the nomads, we do not want to spook them.  Long arms should be kept under cover.  Hand weapons under loose tunics."
Ms. Vik, for the first time in the discussion, tested the waters asking, "Gauss pistol?"  The Countess turned to her saying, "If you feel you want to.  Absolutely." as if she were talking to the Knights.  The apparent signal to Inger was that her lack of rank was unimportant in this matter.  Getting back on the topic of the expedition, Mikah asked, "How many people do you expect to have coming on this expedition other than our crew?"
Ursara said, "We have a larger on-world staff than just in this city but have pulled together seven workers, my medical advisor and two other persons from my direct staff.  Do you have any idea how many people you'd like to bring from your staff?"  Zimzod guessed, "Um, five or six" and Brian asked, "Have you gotten permission from the Marquis to carry out this expedition?"  Countess Ursara easily answered, "We made our intentions known to Admiral Sir Shariikh when we arrived in system and his Lordship wished us good luck.  He added that he thought we would not be particularly successful, but wished us good luck anyway."
Getting back to the issue of hiring help, Mikah asked, Matter of factly, "So, you've tried to hire local people to do this and they have been unwilling.  What are their reservations about this?"  The Countess said, "They are not interested because they don't feel it will be worth it.  Anyone who goes into the desert looking for nomads either comes back with nothing but a sunburn, at best, or does not come back at all."  Always the pragmatist, Brian asked if there was a payment, even if they failed to make any agreements or even contact the nomads?"
Not liking the words Brian used, but agreeing with the sentiment, Mikah said, "That is a good question.  What happens if nothing happens?"  With an open look on her face, the Countess answered, "At the very least, you will have my good will.  So, you could count on my cooperation if you had something you need my help with.  I mean you will need good will from some of us if you are going to survive the Dragon Lady's glare..."
When Mikah asked why, the Countess actually giggled, then asked, "You've not actually met Delphine have you?"  Mikah admitted, she hadn't, and the Countess continued, "She is not a fun person to hang out with." stressing the word 'Not'.  Leaning a bit closer conspiratorially, she said, "Just a social hint, consider this advanced payment if you like.  I wouldn't wear the starbursts around her."  As she said this Ursara pointed at Mikah's earrings.  Mikah nodded in some confusion at the comments and Countess Ursara explained, "She came here, from Capital and the Imperial Core, to be a big fish in her own pond.  So, you should never accidentally show her up in her own Court."  Especially wearing a gift from Duke Norris.
Zimzod asked what things could go wrong and how, and what items and technologies would be available?  He mentioned things from sealed tents to recharging his battledress.  All the answers that could be were easily given, and satisfactory.  They were all told they'd be in native tents, not sealed habs.  When it came to a point, the Countess was again very matter of fact when she said, "If we can find some way to create a franchise here, the rewards would be insane riches.  Making all of the shareholders insanely wealthy.   And you would be shareholders."  As things reached a steady pace, the four came to a consensus, deciding it was more or less in their eventual best interests, and didn't sound too difficult.  So, they agreed to help the Countess in her expedition.Finishing With A Tour And Some Chat
Ursara was very pleased and made them aware of some additional details.  She said she needed a few days to round up and organize the proper supplies and animals.  Once they finished the discussion, Ursara suggested that, when they returned to their ship later, they could settle the number of staff they planned to bring and call that back to her staff.  Then the Countess invited them into her living room to relax.  They passed through the forward doorway into several very opulent compartments that were all oddly not rigged to be lived in.  It looked as if every space was part of one very complex show piece.  As he walked, Brian realized the ship must be much larger than the limited rooms they had been shown.  Even taking into account the cargo bay.  Brian said to the Countess as they walked, "This ship is a very interesting design.  I am also an engineer.  Could one of your staff perhaps give me a tour of the ship?"
Delighted, the Countess said, "Sure, do you all want the tour?" and the rest of the group agreed, sharing an interest.  Signaling her crew, the Countess led them on a tour of the vessel, after instructing to the ship's cook for dinner.  They then spent half an hour touring and discussing the vessel.  None of the rooms was a dedicated living space, instead being rigged as public spaces for some reason.  The Countess slept in her office and there were fold down bunks in various places throughout the craft for the crew.  But, it was in the engineering section that Brian learned the most, as he saw the ship had a full jump suite.  This told the engineer the ship was in fact jump capable on its own.
Understanding the design specs at last, Brian said, "This is a very interesting, design which appears both self-sufficient and also unable to operate on its own at the same time.  Does this ship work with another vessel?  Or is it its own craft?"  The Countess said Dulcinea was actually the away ship from her yacht, the Gypsy Girl, which was currently in orbit.  When he asked why Dulcinea was jump capable, the Countess said her business needs sometimes needed ships in different systems.  When the subject came up, the Countess said, "For security in space, Gypsy Girl is armed to her maximum ability, with ten turrets and a bay weapon.  No pirate's easy target this!"  The last was said with a very satisfied smile, and Ursara didn't appear to be interested in hiding anything.
Finally, they made their way to the ship's dining room and sat to eat.  Much of the early conversation was based on the interest in gems shared by Dame Mikah and the Countess.  Eventually, Mikah asked about news from the Trin's Veil Subsector and the Countess grinned sheepishly, admitting she hadn't been back there in some time.  She said, "My husband and I don't quite get along."  Continuing, she said, "He seems to...um...oh, what's the word... "
Sir Brian quipped, "He's an ass?", and the others laughed as Countess Ursara said, "He seems to think the way to the Emperor's heart is through his aunt.  Sir Zimzod joked, "Open relationship, huh?" with a bit of an evil glint in his eye.  The Countess answered, "No.  More like, he is a toady and I am not willing to divorce him."  As conversation about the personal lives of high nobility started circulating, Ms. Vik made a conscious effort to pay a great deal of attention to her dinner plate, drink lightly and be 'quiet staff'.  Eventually, they shared after dinner drinks before the team went back to the air-raft to return to the California.  Just before they left the sitting room, Countess Ursara handed Dame Mikah a packet that had seemed to have been prepared by staff while they ate.  Ursara said, "I look forward to working with you."  Mikah took the packet saying, "Thank you, Your Excellency."Discussing The Offer On The Hotel California
The four returned to the ship to find Rol had cooked for those left behind.  While they met with the Countess, Zach had tried to tie a computer connection to the local network.  Thanks to his work, he learned the port had a secure network and there was no generally available world-network.  As the Knights and Inger returned, everyone was gathered near the air-lock to hear what went on aboard Dulcinea.  After the moved to the ship's lounge, Mikah opened the packet Ursara had given her to see a very brilliant green clear gemstone.  There was also a note reading, "This is a two carat Katarulu Emerald.  It comes from my homeworld, and it is a gift to you."  Dame Mikah recognized this as a fairly rare stone, and doubted she would spend the money to buy, even with her current fortune.
Once everyone was settled, and the comments over the emerald faded away, the Knights and Ms. Vik filled the others in on what was discussed.  They started deciding who would go and who would stay with the ship.  Brian said he'd stay with the ship as did Emkir, who was emphatic that he didn't want to leave the ship on this world.  Beyond that, everyone else started preparing to go camping.  The restrictions against being obvious with their technology were discussed, and Brian brought up the need to protect everything against sand intrusion.  Brian also asked about communications, and they discussed the odd ability of the nomads to electronically "disappear".  All those who had decided they'd be wearing their armor, and the rest vacc suits.
Brian said he'd spend the next two days, when not working in engineering, researching the nomads and any tech they had that could cut the team off from the ship.  Once their plans started to settle, Zach told them what he'd found on the law book, which wasn't much.  He was able to see that it broke down, by section, into a group of abstracts.  Each of those gave a general understanding of the law.  An abstract pointed to more specific legal details on pages further back in the book, which explicitly described the laws.  The final section of the book held legal precedents and establishments of legal right or vacancy.  Zach said that getting beyond that would be a great deal of work.
When Mikah asked if there was anything in the book about messing with the natives, Zach said, "There may be."  But the look he gave said he honestly hadn't gotten that much out of it.  Zach did promise to spend some time, over the next two days, checking on any laws dealing with the natives.  He admitted it would be hard without a connection to a local computer network for on-world data.  When Brian heard this, he said, "Well, we have Ms. Vik.  Can we get a connection through her?" before turning to ask the former Port director herself.
Ms. Vik said, "I suppose I can try.  What would be the justification?"  When Brian said, "We can tell them we're working with the Countess...", she was cut off by Zach, who said the port wouldn't care about that.  Ms. Vik agreed with him and suggested, "I guess I can say it's for general research purposes, but I think they'll want something more than that."  Zach complained, "The way they tore the ship apart inspecting us when we landed, do you think they'll give us access to their network?"  Ms. Vik suggested, "They will if we give them a good enough reason."  Zach countered, "Tell them we want to go investigate the natives."  Both Inger and Brian said no, and Brian suggested, "Tell them we want to do more research on their planet."
Ms. Vik also suggested, "We could say we want the access for anthropologic research." and Brian admitted that was a good idea.  Emkir made the suggestion, "Why not just honestly ask for access on the basis that we could better learn the laws and trading restrictions in the port?"  Hearing this, Ms. Vik said, "Why don't I try both?  I could just say we need to learn the laws and the connection would help us with that.  And we also have someone on board who would like to do anthropologic research, as he is working on his dissertation."
Once the chatter burned down to the need to act, they separated into personal activities for the evening, planning to take care of their tasks the next day.  Not thinking she had to wait, Ms. Vik figured a port was a port, and operated 24/7.  But when she called over to the tower for the port offices contact data, she was told the offices were closed for the evening.  Inger was told she had to call back the next day, after 8am, local time.  Not having anything else important for her to look up, Inger chose to relax for the rest of the evening, watching vids with Mikah.Doing More Research Before Bed
Rol started digging into the ship's Library Data on Jae Tellona Prime and the nomads.  As he did, Zimzod went for information on the Countess.  Brian looked for what he could find on the local conditions and environment, trying to learn what might help them secure comms between those in the desert and on the ship.  Zach put aside his legal research and help research the nomads.  More practically, Aiden started pulling out and organizing the gear he felt he'd need on the trip.  Emkir sparked up a computer terminal to work on Brian and Zach's inscriptions.  As everyone else started working at their individual pursuits, Mikah kicked back to relax and wait for reports from "her staff".  As they worked, Zimzod wondered out loud what kind of clothes the natives wore?  Mikah said, "That's a good question."  Zach said he was hoping to find that out, but it seemed the ship's library data had very little on the subject.
Before the crew hit the rack, they found there was only incidental knowledge about the nomads on the sources they had access to.  It appeared the nomads generally wore loose garments that covered the entire body.  Beneath that, males wore trews(pants) and a tunic, as well as a belt.  They could wear a pack too.  Females were known to dress both as males, or in one-piece neck to ankle dresses under the robe-like over-garments common to both sexes.  The nomads appeared to all carry bladed weapons made of bone and missile weapons made of, or tipped with, rock and whatever they'd traded for.
The "camel analog" on this world was a tail-less, fur covered, six leg creature called a "Tanir".  One animal could carry two persons or a pack of luggage.  The Tanir's six feet made it the most stable large beast to have evolved on-world for desert movement.  The beasts were the fastest non-mechanized mode of desert transport available.  The horse-analog was a short haired, web-footed quadruped called a "Golning".  These beasts were able to carry two persons or drag a small pallet of goods.  A Golning's webbed feet were able to fold and dig, like a wide spade, into the desert sand to find water below the surface and their sense of smell had evolved to that purpose as well as self-defense and food foraging.
Rol and Brian found there were anomalies about the world that seemed to affect electronics, but it seemed only the nomads had been able to make use of this effect.  There were not many published investigations, and no exhaustive work, with few expeditions planned from what was in their library data.  Anthropological data on the nomads was sparse, and no real studies had succeeded.  Those expeditions that had been mounted either came back empty handed or were found, tied and alive, in the desert with all their goods stolen.
Brian said that any data on the nomads they managed to record would be of significant value to anthropological organizations.  That could be a possible source of additional income.  Other known desert hazards included snakes, poisonous vermin and plants, heat, dryness, dust storms and the general stupidity of sophonts who wandered into deserts without the needed survival skills.  Predatory life forms had evolved on-world, which knocked a victim down to leech resources from the body in-place.  Such a victim was not killed outright, to delay decay and maintain the food source for as long as possible.
After talking about the needs for weapons maintenance in the desert, Zach announced he was going "into town tomorrow", to look for some supplies.  The rest of the crew generally laughed at him for the idea first, and Rol said this wasn't a "city" in the sense Zach might think.  But soon, Aiden became the first to ask Zach to look for material or something, to cover the ports on his LAG from sand.  Not a professional combat soldier, Zach said he'd get some nylons.  When Aiden was critical of that idea, Zach pulled up several examples he'd seen in documentary coverage of warfare in deserts.  Rol said those were materials scrounged under battlefield conditions and suggested they get something more specifically made for weapons if they could?  As they talked, Rol debated bringing his gauss rifle, due to the tech issue.
Mikah said the weapons could be brought, but would have to be camouflaged.  Thinking about that, Mikah told Zach, "While you're in the port, get some fabric to wrap weapons in."  Then, she changed her mind and decided to go shopping with him.  Aiden brought up bridge watches again, and they talked about that because the ship was now on an open tarmac, and easily approachable.  Because of that, Mikah gave in that they'd need someone on watch, and told Aiden he had the duty.  When Aiden asked why it was him, Mikah said, "Because you're Mr. Paranoid."  He agreed to take watch at 5am after getting some sleep.  Their plans for the next day set, they each head off to sleep setting their clocks.
_________________________________________________________________________ Next: Getting Into Town And Trouble